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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Mourning Jewelry

Here is a fantastic bunch of 1800's trivia.......

I'd like you to meet Carol Miller.  We met on my visit to the Des Moines Quilt Guild when she attended a couple of my workshops.  I got to talking about what life was like for ordinary prairie women in the 1800's (what a surprise...I know!) and Carol told me about her passion for mourning jewelry.  I had read all about mourning jewelry in Early American Life magazine (Feb 2004 issue) but had never seen any in person.  Carol offered to bring her collection to class the next day.  We had no idea what a special display we were in for!

Early American Life magazine tells us that mourning jewelry arrived in America with the colonists, but it was in 1763 that New York jeweler, Charles Olivier Bruff, hired a London hairworker to create mourning jewelry with hair of the deceased worked into the pieces.

At first, the hair was tightly woven and/or braided and inserted in the back side of lockets and brooches, or placed in the back of framed portraits.  Gradually, the hair designs were moved to the front of the jewelry pieces for a more visible presence.   Mourning jewelry became so popular, that long before he died, George Washington cut and saved locks of his hair for his wife and family.  A mourning ring, circa 1800, and a miniature pendant with George's hair (belonging to Martha) is part of the collection at Mount Vernon. 

Hard to believe that this piece in Carol's collection isn't swirls of paint, but is in fact hair!  This is the earliest piece in her collection, dating from sometime in the 1700's.   All of the motifs inside the pin were formed from hair.  

As you can see, these pieces say "In Memory Of" and have locks of hair in the center cabochon.
The hat pins have hair in them as well.

 In this photo, all of the dark and medium brown braiding and roping is real hair!  See the earrings on the left with the open weave in the middle....all hair work!  (The woman in the photo is wearing a pair of earrings exactly like those!)  The medium brown interlocking piece at the bottom of the photo with the gold plates is all made of hair.  It was worn by a man around this upper arm as a remembrance of his departed wife.  

Again...all the twisted and braided pieces are hair work.  Note the round pendant mid-way on the right that has a bit of blue, beige and red.  Carol told us that the blue is blonde hair that turns that color over time....making brown hair more desirable.  Who knew blonde hair would turn blue?   The long piece just under the locket was made for a man using his wife's hair.  He used it to secure his pocket watch, and therefore, could touch his wife's hair when looking at his watch.  

Here's a closer look at the braiding and different twists of the hair.  Isn't the locket lovely?

Carol volunteers at a local living history museum and demonstrates how mourning jewelry is made.  She uses horse hair, but has made a few pieces using her own hair.  Most of us may not be looking for mourning jewelry made from our deceased loved ones locks, but knowing about this 1800's tradition is a good thing.  Getting a chance to see it in person was really great as Carol has a wonderful collection.  

My heartfelt thanks to Carol for taking the time to share her collection with all of us!  


  1. Absolutely amazing! I think I prefer it to be encased in a locket rather than braided into a rope tho...

  2. That is fascinating! I've never heard of mourning jewelry. Some of those twists and roping are amazingly intricate. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I remember seeing a nice display in the museum in Aberdeen, SD. The workmanship in these pieces is extraordinary, but part of me still finds it a bit, well, creepy. On the other hand, it is sentimental, too.

  4. how fascinating. I had heard of mourning jewellry containing hair, but it was lovely to see all these examples.
    I guess a more modern equivalent, is having someone's ashes made into a diamond.

  5. How interesting! I've heard of mourning jewelry, but I've never really seen it. Amazing how they created these pieces out of hair.

  6. I remember trying to braid my daughters hair and how slippery it could get, how difficult to get it to hold where I wanted it. That anyone could form such perfect little treasures is amazing to me. What a fascinating post, and great examples of this art form!

  7. I used to volunteer at a living history place 10 minutes from my home. I remember reading about mourning jewelry and seeing photos, but nothing this amazing. Wow!!

  8. Fascinating....thanks for sharing.

  9. Thanks so much for letting us see Carol's wonderful collection. I collected "hair jewelry" many years ago and have some nice pices as well.....haven't added to my collection in a long time.
    What's so fascinating about it - besides the process - is that each piece is absolutely unique and an especially personal momento

  10. Wow! I'm so glad I happened across your blog when I did, this is incredible! I will definitely have to look further into this, I have a friend who is going to start chemo and maybe this is something she'd be interested in as a way to keep ahold of her hair. Or she will give me a funny look... I think this is a really neat form of art and a great way to have a keepsake personally, and especially back when photographs weren't as readily available. Thank you so much for sharing this Pam!

  11. Gosh so interesting! Something (else) I didn't know about. What amazing pieces of art. The day after my daughter's first pony died years ago, we found a birds nest madeout of his hair...that was deeply moving for my daughter, I can imagine these pieces were a great comfort too.